Amongst the hustle and bustle of the Battersea Affordable Art fair we were lucky enough to sit down with one of our most acclaimed artists - Kareem Rizk. Here, in an exclusive Smithson Gallery interview, he gives us a sneak peak into his inspiring world of collage...
We were wondering about the first time that you used collage as a way of communicating. When did you start to cut out and layer surfaces, put them down and think this is the direction I want to go in....
Probably as far back as high school, it was in year 11 or 12 that I did a project that involved collage. It was more digitally based, but I liked the idea of combining different images into one complete finished thing. It happened in a more detailed way when I left high school and went to on to do a portfolio preparation course before uni.
And that opened your eyes to combining different mediums, did the course expose you to all these different mediums and ways of workings in the light that you’ll pick one? You appear to have almost refused to pick one and instead wanted to use it all, because it’s relevant....
Yes. I think haven been given the opportunity to look at, for example printmaking (which I had only had a little bit of experience with), and then have also been able to do 3D design, ceramics and everything else. They introduced techniques about collage in the painting course, and I just loved it. I did a series of furniture-based collages where I photocopied elements of interiors with lights hanging and bits of furniture from different sources.
It’s interesting because from a spatial perspective collage is really fascinating, the play of depth, of layers and of linearity. You’re often layering in a very physical way, but the spatial plane is often purposefully confusing. It’s kind of flat but with a sense of depth.
Yes and to have started out with interiors, there’s a lot of depth and a lot of perspective involved.
With collage how do you decide when something is finished?
Often it comes down to intuition. Something they talked a lot about at Brighton Bay and uni was knowing when something was finished. We had the point drummed into us that less is more. If you know how to do less is more, then you get perspective, you get balance and space and all that. But the thing about knowing when not to add more is a gut feeling - at least for me.
I wanted to ask you about definitions. I know definitions are so ephemeral these days and everything leaks into one another, but I know you’ve got such a diverse background and are often referred to as an artist, illustrator and designer. I’m just wondering where you think all these aspects feed in to your work, or whether different aspects of your practice represent one of these avatars a bit more than others?
I think definitely over the last 2 or 3 years my work has started to show a lot more characteristics of illustration in terms of stylisation, and has become a lot more refined in terms of design. Some people have commented that some of my works could be advertisements, but they’re taken so far out of context that they stand alone as an artwork. Obviously having a graphic design background I couldn’t help this aspect leaking into my practice. But I think all three definitions are relevant to my work because it’s almost always a combination of all three of those fields in varying degrees.
"Yes it’s the story contained in the image or the memory it brings to them. A car they used to own, a dress they used to wear or a place they’ve been."
Obviously the slippages between all three are happening now – between graphics, fine art and illustration. All these definitions just leak into one another and I think in your work it’s a metaphor of the collage, everything coming together with an air of no limits or boundaries...
Yes and they’re being a very fine line between each one, merging all three....
Moving on to your references, sometimes you’re quite nostalgic, they have a retro, vintage feel. Do you find that they’re received in the same way when you exhibit them internationally?
Overall they’ve been received in a very similar way. Many people have said that they feel they can really connect with the work. They see something in it, either of themselves, or of their experience of their past, so I think it’s a universal thing. Because I’ve taken pictures and references from so many different sources, whether they be European, Australian or American, the culture, fashion and technology of previous eras and generations, wherever that may be, has been relevant to so many different people.
So they’re almost timeless and placeless, and it’s not solely just the specific image that people relate to is it, it’s the idea or the sport or...
Yes it’s the story contained in the image or the memory it brings to them. A car they used to own, a dress they used to wear or a place they’ve been.
"It’s something that’s emotional, it’s about feeling and it's about memories. Feeling what elements work with each other."
And they’re very suggestive aren’t they, they’re not didactic in that sense, they’re not saying this is what the narrative is...
Yes and that’s one thing that’s been pretty consistent in my work is that I’m not trying to voice an opinion or tell a specific story. However, I definitely think a narrative runs through my work when you look at it as a whole. It’s also important that each piece can also stand alone, allowing you to develop individual stories.
When you’re finding images and deciding on the composition for a new piece do you have a personal narrative in mind?
Very rarely. I believe the narrative in my work has evolved more subconsciously. I think in the beginning there was more of a personal reason why I picked certain images, because they either had some kind of relevance to my childhood, things I was interested in or things I remember from certain points in my life, for example like Egypt. I think my background and the Egyptian influence (having lived there) has had quite an impact, it was solid and I could take something from that. Over time I think the narratives I use have become more universal.
It’s kind of an inherent intuition, it’s why you tear a picture out of a magazine or miss out an image because nothing grabs you, it’s why you feel attracted to one image over another but you can’t explain why, in collage especially...
Yes I think this is one thing I’ve always been aware of. You don't have to be trained in any particular discipline to be able to do collage. It’s something that’s emotional, it’s about feeling and it's about memories. Feeling what elements work with each other.
The idea of feelings is quite ephemeral and intangible, but your work materialises them to some extent. What mediums do you use and do you set a formula for it. Are there some materials that you just wouldn’t touch because you know they don’t work for whatever reason..
I tend to have my favourites. There’s a staple of mediums and materials that I predominantly use – those being paper, acrylic and gel medium. But I’ve also used oil pastel, graphite pencil and coloured pencils. I’ve stayed away from things like oil paint just because it hasn’t been relevant to the way I work. I tend to work quite quickly through the various stages of making my art so I don’t think I’d have the patience for anything that is oil based and takes a longer time to dry - at least not for now.
So you’d try any material?
Not necessarily. I’ve always worked with mediums that can be worked over almost instantly or at least ones that dry quickly and can be layered, scratched, scraped, peeled or sanded back. I think I enjoy these kinds of mediums more because they better assist in translating or expressing the general narrative that is consistent throughout my work. But I’d love to do screen printing. I would love to incorporate that into my work. I’d also like to maybe use more coated and specially treated surfaces, juxtaposing a very shiny surface with a very rough and textured surface. I’d like to experiment with transparency layers like Acetate and Perspex.
Yes there’s so much potential. What’s it like using wood as a canvas instead of paper?
I love it. I think wood takes mediums in a different way. I love the way that when you put paper down on wood and then you put paint on top of it you can scratch or sand it back and it allows for that. That’s where wood allows you to be a bit more rough or a bit more harsh with how you take back, or distress the medium.
And it’s got a nostalgic reference doesn’t it, the history of sanding back and going through the layers?
There’s a really interesting thing where you have a printed wood texture on paper and you’re putting that onto wood itself. That’s appeared a couple of times in my work and it’s a really great juxtaposition.
Can you tell us a bit about your inspirations Kareem?
Well I take inspiration from almost anything. I’ve travelled a lot so I’ve seen a lot of different architecture, fashions, colours and textures – whether it be the colours on an old building, the side of a truck or a scrunch of paper on the ground.
How do you record these finds, do you keep sketchbooks?
I don’t keep sketchbooks. I often just collect material off the street or take photographs. Also, I have a very good visual memory. If I see something that really stands out to me it often tends to stick in my head, I don't often need the physical record.
With your background in graphics and visual communication, and with the mixture of the handmade and digital in your own work, I wanted to ask about how you feel about the difficult challenge you’re faced with as an artist -staying true to physical, tactile, tangible skills and aligning this with a more screen-based digital focus.
The experiments I did with digital collage were very successful so I continued making artworks in the digital medium - just as a secondary medium. Very shortly after it became the potential to do commercial freelance work, so I was able to maintain my style, but translate that into commercial illustration. This then opened a new field of work - having fine art running alongside illustration - where you can see that I’ve retained a lot of the stylistic aspects, despite the production methods being very different to each other.
So do you still do a lot of freelance commissions then?
Yes and it’s something I’m looking to do a lot more of. Doing freelance illustration and fine art, basically that’s two different careers, so trying to run them both at the same time and focusing my attention on both is hard work and very time consuming, but I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else. I really enjoy it.
You get some graphic designers who wouldn’t dare pick up a brush and get messy, but I think where the cross overs happen it’s often the most exciting...
That’s why I love it so much, to be able to mix rough with clean edge, or rough with considered composition...
That’s why I think you can appeal to such a diverse audience, by embodying both.
Yes, another directive for me is that my fine art course at university was very fine art based. It was a graphic design course but they really encouraged you to get messy with materials and be diverse. During the course there were such things as photography, life drawing and painting. They encouraged you to use a lot of different fine art techniques and to try and transpose that into design. We were told constantly that graphic design is about communication. So you use whatever means necessary to best communicate the message. Getting the message across is key.
Here’s to 2014, it's going to be a fantastic year!
I’m very excited about 2014. I’ve had a great start to the year both creatively and business wise and it’s been getting better and better. I’m especially excited about continuing to work with Anna and Smithson Gallery. I believe we have a strong future together. I’m very much looking forward to being represented at some new and higher end art fairs - hopefully continuing the success of AAF Battersea last year and topping it! I’m also focusing on Copenhagen this year for opportunities to broaden my audience more locally, with gallery representation in the city and involvement in various creative events.
Thank you so much Anna for all your very hard work, commitment and understanding over the last couple of years. But also, thank you for sticking with me and thank you for believing in me and my work.